By Brian Prisco | Film | August 24, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | August 24, 2010 |
In 2002, Pat Tillman, a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals, inexplicably gave up a million dollar contract to enlist in the military with his younger brother Kevin to fight in Afghanistan. Tillman refused to give interviews, which seemed ironic coming from a mouthy surfer jock who was never afraid to speak his mind, no matter how blunt the trauma. Tillman kept his reasons private and joined up with the Rangers for a three year tour-of-duty. Tillman made headlines for his “heroic sacrifice,” even though he just wanted to be treated the same as any other soldier. He would make headlines two years later after he was killed during combat and returned to his family in a pine box draped with medals, the American flag, and a steaming pile of governmental propaganda that his loved ones would spend the next four years sorting through to get to the truth. The unbelievable efforts to unravel the lies spewed by the Bush administration and to simply find out what happened to Pat Tillman is at the heart of the documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, The Tillman Story. Granted, it’s not exactly a stunning insight to point out the American government is underhanded and conniving and that politicians lie, but the extent to which the military went to spin the tragic accidental death of a soldier into what was essentially an enlistment commercial would sicken even the hardiest of hearts. The film is a fierce gut punch to decency and serves as a nauseating reminder that smuggling drugs in the coffins of GIs isn’t the worst desecration of a military corpse you can commit.
In the era of 24-hour news and pundit privateering, The Tillman Story offers up a wonderful yanking of the curtain to expose the machinery behind the spin. The U.S. government and the U.S. military sought to use the corpse of Pat Tillman as a soapbox to tout honor and sacrifice, figuring that the family would stand meekly by, dabbing eyes with tissues and waving tiny American flags. Little did they realize, they were fucking with the wrong family. Dannie and Pat, Sr., Tillman’s parents, would undergo what was tantamount to a fierce crusade to find out the truth behind the death of their eldest son. They would be lied to — repeatedly — by the soldiers who fought beside him that night in April of 2004, by the military he made a promise to fight for, and by the government he swore to protect. But they doggedly pursued their case. The government dropped over 3000 pages of partially redacted reports on them, which Dannie pored over and managed to un-redact through patience and research. They took the fight as far as it could go through the ranks of the military until they were able to get a hearing before Congress. Dannie Tillman explained to the congressmen, “Throughout this ordeal, we’ve been asked what would appease us. We’ll never get Pat back. We just want the truth.” And to this day, they still haven’t gotten satisfactory answers.
But through authors like Jon Krakauer and through this film, at least their message is heard. Pat Tillman was a hero — but not for the reasons the government tried to pin a silver star on. Fox News, CNN, and the rest of the news vultures tried to tart up Tillman as an onward Christian Soldier who would give them terrorists a choice between rock, flag, or eagle before he went America all over their asses. Tillman was a well-read fella who respected all religions, didn’t believe in an afterlife, and signed documentation specifically to prevent the military from carrying him home on a shield. And he certainly did not die a hero’s death. The government tried to claim a Taliban ambush of 20 or so raiders overtook Tillman’s platoon, and he sacrificed himself saving his fellow soldiers. After years of lying, the government finally admitted the truth, Tillman was killed by friendly fire — you know, “the fog of war.” But like watching a murder mystery, the truth proves to be more horrible and insidious. But I guess when your last moments of life are shouting “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman! I’m Pat Fucking Tillman!” as your teammates and countrymen take aim from a better shooting position to blow off the back of your head, it probably doesn’t play as well in the fly-over states.
What’s endearing about the Tillman family is how un-sanctimonious they are towards the efforts of the government to embroil them in the bullshit. When the government sends the casualty crew to meet with Marie Tillman — Pat’s wife, childhood sweetheart, and the only girlfriend he’s ever had — it’s not to console her, but to see if they can convince her to allow Pat to be buried against his wishes in Arlington ceremony. When they decide to turn his funeral service into a chance for politicos to give pretty speeches, Pat’s youngest brother jumps up on stage in jeans, T-shirt, and a frothy pint of beer in his hand to thank so many fucking people for showing up and saying pretty things but that “Pat’s fucking dead. He never believed in any of that God shit. He’s fucking dead, so all this is bullshit. Thanks.” Pat Senior, a lawyer by trade, after years of frustration on the part of his wife, sends a letter accusing the military of lying, and he cordially signs it off with “In summation, fuck you…and yours.” Which manages to reopen the investigation, and Pat’s youngest brother responds, “If my mother knew that all she had to do was tell the military to go fuck themselves to get an answer, she would have told them to go fuck themselves years ago.”
No one may ever know why Tillman served in the military. I personally feel his brother decided to join, and Tillman wanted to protect him and fight along side him. Even when he was offered a chance to stay home and not fight in a war he no longer believed in — and Tillman was very vocal about how the Iraq portion of the war felt fucking illegal — he returned for his second tour of duty and the one that would eventually get him killed by his own troops. Which would explain why even after the truth of his brother’s inglorious death came out, Kevin Tillman — the middle brother — remained and served out his entire three year tour.
All Tillman wanted to do was to fight for his country, which makes him, and any other man or woman who serves with that purpose, a hero in my book. And all his family wanted to do was to learn the truth about what happened to their son. Instead, the government and the military sought fit to jam hooks in the memory of this man and wave him like a banner. The Tillman Story should and does fill you with rage: outrage, plain old fashion disgust, and horror. I personally want to stuff Donald Rumsfeld in a doggie kennel transport and UPS his ass to The Hague. Hopefully, if you get the opportunity to watch this film, you’ll be lining up to help.